“Trade unions hold the answer to Egypt’s problems”


Just a few days after the second anniversary of the start of the Egyptian revolution and the country is once again in turmoil.

On Sunday, Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi declared a state of emergency and a 30-day curfew in the cities of Port Said, Suez and Ismailia following days of deadly clashes.

At least 38 people in Port Said died at the weekend after the news that 21 people had been sentenced to death sparked angry protests.

They were sentenced for their involvement in the riots which killed 74 people after a football game between Port Said’s al-Masry and Cairo’s al-Ahly in February 2012.

Discontent with President Morsi’s rule fuelled unrest elsewhere, including ongoing clashes in Cairo.

This latest development is a far cry from the optimism that Egyptians felt at the start of the uprising against President Hosni Mubarak’s three-decade rule.

On 25 January 2011, tens of thousands of Egyptians – tired of corruption and poverty – took to the streets to demand a better life.

Among those calling for “bread, freedom and social justice” was Fatemah Ramadan, a labour and socialist activist. Ramadan is one of the founders of the Egyptian Federation of the Independent Trade Unions, which was established after the revolution.

The Federation aims to represent the millions of Egyptian workers desperate to improve their work and living conditions. The average wage in Egypt is still approximately 500 Egyptian pounds (approximately US$75) per month and workers have called for a minimum wage of 1200 Egyptian pounds (US$180) a month.

On the second anniversary of the Egyptian revolution Ramadan says that the labour movement can celebrate two main achievements: “The first is the continuation of the protests despite all the pressures, assaults and the criminalisation.

“The second thing is wining the right to organise which the workers imposed by creating their own independent unions.”

For Ramadan, Egypt’s watershed moment came in April 2006 when around 24,000 workers from the El-Mahalla Al-Kubra textile factory in the city of El-Mahalla went on strike.

After years of suffering from decreased job security, increased working hours and fewer benefits, workers went on strike.

“The strikes raised several demands including the implementation of a minimum wage, work hazard compensation and permanent jobs for temporary workers.”

The workers were successful on a number of points including the securing a 10 per cent share of company profits and paid lunches.

“After the revolution these demands continued,” says Ramadan, “including the fight against corruption.”

During Mubarak’s era corruption was widespread and after his overthrow, there was a huge expectation that it would be stopped and that the lives of workers would be greatly improved. Sadly, says Ramadan, this hasn’t been the case.

After the revolution the same liberal economic policies that were implemented during Mubarak’s rule continued, so in most of the strikes no concessions were made to the workers and in many cases violence was used to suppress the protests.


Birth of a movement

In 1957, Egypt’s second president Gamal Abdel Nasser, established the Egyptian Trade Union Federation (ETUF), in an attempt contain the labour movement.

From that moment, Egyptian unions were associated with and controlled by the ruling authorities, and so in most cases workers’ strikes were not supported by the unions.

This is why Ramadan considers the rise of an independent trade union movement, with membership estimated at between one and 1.5 million people, such a major achievement.

“Since the revolution around 1000 new independent unions have sprung up. Previously, workers would complain that the so-called official unions [those affiliated to the ETUF] did not represent them, but now they are establishing their own.”

However, Ramadan also identifies a number of challenges. “First of all, most public and private sector employers don’t recognise the unions. They don’t consider the unions legal or accept to negotiate with it.”

And although in March 2011, Egypt’s then manpower minister Ahmed Hassan El-Borai, announced the right for Egyptian workers to establish their own labour unions and federations, the law is yet to be ratified.

The second problem facing newly independent trade unions is the lack of money.

“Our main source of income is member subscriptions and donations,” says Ramadan. “This is not sufficient. We are starting from scratch. Over the past 50 years, due to the domination of the ETUF, there were no real trade union activities, and hence the workers have no real trade unionism experience or awareness.”


The revolution continues

Two years after the revolution and the political scene in Egypt is still complex. Although the Muslim Brotherhood is in power, the opposition is trying to find a place in the next parliamentary elections through the National Salvation Front.

Made up of parties inspired by different ideologies such as liberal, leftist and social democrat, Ramadan argues that the opposition’s main challenge is its absence of real strategy.

“The opposition’s main objective now is to create a civilian, secular state. However, they are not listening to people’s real demands. For the opposition, the main fight is against the Islamic forces. They don’t take into account that the Muslim Brotherhood and these other Islamic parties are popular. They are big organisations and the only way to stand up to them is by reaching to the people and addressing their real problems and demands.”

And for Ramadan the answer lies with the unions. “The way out of this complicated situation is in the hands of the labour movement.

“If the movement reaches a high level of organisation and cohesion, people will trust it and it will be able to play an important role in continuing the revolution.

“It is now clear that demonstrations alone cannot bring the change we are aspiring. Only workers’ strikes and protests can force the ruling regime to change its policies and respond to people’s demands.”